Early American Republic

One Thousand Gophers: Information and Emigration in the Early U.S.

By guest contributor JT Jamieson

I have been to Illinois

A braggadocio writing in The New-England Magazine in 1832 asked his Northern audience, “Is it possible that no one in these parts has seen a Gopher? I have seen a thousand; and some other animals, too, that are not to be found in New-England[.]” Having apparently spent time “somewhere between the Mississippi and the Missouri,” the author was eager to bring all the “rare beasts” he had encountered in the West to New Englanders. Unable to deliver the actual specimens, though, he resolved to rely instead on print and gave his readers a virtual tour among the beasts of the West: “I cannot bring them to you, reader, and, therefore, I must e’en carry you, in imagination, to them.” The author nonetheless asserted his credibility, reliability, and expertise along his virtual zoological tour – and once more, of gophers, reminded readers of the thousand he’d seen (“Rare Beasts,” New-England Magazine, March, 1832).

Camas_rat

“The Camas Rat”, from John James Audobon’s The Quadrupeds of North America (1851-4).

His emphasis on sight and first-hand experience was likely designed to allay the suspicions early nineteenth-century Americans harbored concerning the transmission of information about the West. Two months earlier, The New-England Magazine had taken up the topic of gophers in order to question the veracity of a Western guidebook author’s geographical information. Reviewers of J.M. Peck’s A Guide for Emigrants, Containing Sketches of Illinois, Missouri, and the Adjacent Parts nitpicked a passage on gophers because Peck, though he described the animal and its dirt mounds, failed to adequately verify his empiricism and expertise:

although one would suppose from this description that the author had inspected the animal, yet we shall venture to say that he knows it only by the works of which he speaks…he does not intimate that he has ever seen one, nor do we know that any of the many Western historians have been so fortunate as to discover the animal before describing it; and the nearest approach we have been able to make towards certainty, after wondering over many of their mounds, is the word of a friend in Illinois, who was told by a neighbor that his father had seen a hunter, who had the skeleton of a Gopher.

The precariousness of knowledge, in a guidebook, no less, coupled with Peck’s “enthusiasm” for Western geography would likely cause the New Englander to “read…with a smile of incredulity”(New-England Magazine, January, 1832).

I have been to Ohio

Believability was one important tool for early nineteenth-century Americans’ mental maps of the West. A sizeable portion of Easterners’ geographic imaginations came from the information for prospective Western emigrants inundating newspapers, periodicals, satires, advertisements, and of course guidebooks. In the press, boosters and anti-emigrationists argued about what emigrants might find in the West. The volume of deceptive, hard-to-believe, and incomplete information generated a dynamic conversation about credulity, distortion, and objectivity in geographic representation. Boosters extolled the West in a typically cartoonish fashion. Anti-emigrationists, who often fretted about their population draining to the West, promoted incredulity as a means to keep enterprising inhabitants east of the Appalachians. Guidebook authors published erroneous information but also found a market in objectivity. Despite the fact that print took on new dimensions of authority in the early nineteenth century, Americans were still living in a world where “books as well as men are fallible,” as an 1839 guidebook put it (Steele’s Western Guidebook and Emigrant’s Directory, 1839). Demonstrating the objectivity of one’s own guidebook made it stand out among the crowd of misleading or untruthful information.

Discerning a ‘truth’ was important to several genres of early nineteenth-century American writing, from gazetteers and censuses to histories to personal narratives. The preoccupation with authenticity, objectivity, or impartiality in these genres reflected the growth of numeracy, an influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism, the marketability of honest and true stories, and, for emigrants, the want of practical or useful information. Emigration commentators engaged in a war of words and Wests, convincing readers either of rosy western fantasies, or of the ruination inevitably awaiting emigrants who strayed from home. Was New England land really as stony and unproductive as boosters said? Did the West – or, could it – have schools? Churches? Locals with sufficient geographic knowledge? Food amenable to Eastern bellies? Ghosts? On that last point, at least, James Hall seemed to give a definitive answer to magazine readers in 1828: “No respectable and truly aristocratic ghost would put up with a log cabin,” no spirit would bother to endure the daily discordant music of Western settlements – the axe and rifle echoing incessantly and annoyingly. Nor would specters be so stupid as to room with the “backwoodsmen, who would as soon scalp a ghost, if a ghost could be scalped, as they would shoot a panther or an Indian” (Letters from the West, 1828).

Western Emigrant Society circular to Andrew Jackson

For the prospective emigrant, Western information was fragile – it was debatable and prone to errors, with a general air of uncertainty and incompleteness. Guidebooks might acknowledge – and apologize for – any errors readers detected. An Ohio gazetteer noted that Western states and territories were, after all, too large to describe with “perfect accuracy” – the best the reader could hope for was that the “work may generally be pronounced correct”(John Kilbourn, The Ohio Gazetteer, 1831). If reading newspapers, Easterners would have been aware that Western geographic information was always in a volatile state of becoming. Emigration societies’ advertisements demonstrated that their first task was to build a public archive of geographic knowledge. The Western Emigrant Society requested information by mailing questionnaires around the country, information that would then be reproduced in the press. Other emigration societies exhibited their dearth of geographic knowledge by naming their destinations with as much specificity as “the West.” In 1819, the New York Emigration Society stated that if it had to choose a more specific location based on “all the sources of information to which your committee have had access,” it would be Illinois. That opinion, however, “would be given with much hesitation and subject to be changed as their information should increase” (“Emigration Society,” National Advocate, August 4, 1819).

If information was uncertain, erroneous, or deceptive, then credulousness, according to anti-emigrationists, was the only rational explanation for emigration from the East. Maine’s American Advocate concluded that if Easterners indeed “hurried away from a comfortable home,” it was only because they’d “swallowed every strange report with a credulity unexampled.” Hoping to enlighten “the eyes of the credulous,” the Advocate asserted that upon an examination “into the real facts…opinions will change into a sober admiration of our own favored territories, and the desire to migrate will die away with the credulity and ignorance that produced it” (“Reflections on Emigration,”  American Advocate, October 18 and November 8, 1817). Often, as was the case with Peck’s Illinoisan gophers, the “real facts” could only be furnished from personal observation, not from the books and accounts of others. Too often Western information was derived in the forms of “fancy” or “whim” from the scheming and interested speculator. So, the author of A Caution to Emigrants clarified in 1819 that “fancy or whim…can neither produce or destroy a fact.” His ultimate caution to readers was this: “let no man, on any condition, or under any circumstances, whatever, be induced to remove his family to a distant country, until he has seen, examined and judged of it for himself” (John Stillman Wright, Letters from the West, or, A Caution to Emigrants, 1819).

Some guidebook authors took advantage of the fact that deceptive or insufficient material came into readers’ orbit. Authors justified writing guidebooks by stating that others writing about Western geography offered either unsatisfactory or untruthful information. In doing so they promised untainted accuracy in their own works. William Darby, a surveyor who penned a major early emigrant guide in 1819, was among the most ardent of guidebook authors to embrace objectivity. Even friendly reviewers of his Guide noted the “difficulty of acquiring satisfactory information” and the “suspicion with which we are obliged to view all accounts of the different parts of the United States,” and derided his failure to clearly point out what information wasn’t derived from personal observation (North American Review, July 1818). Nevertheless, Darby asserted his hatred of the erroneous and untruthful. He engaged in an angry debate in 1817, for example, with Hezekiah Niles, well-known editor of Baltimore’s Niles’ Weekly Register, over mistakes in their descriptions of Louisiana. As the two got in a spat over topographical errors and misrepresentations in each others’ work, Darby took the opportunity to proclaim his philosophy of geographic writing: “In every stage of my advance as a writer, however humble may be my attempts, I have constantly endeavored to present facts as they really are in nature. The mischief is incalculable that has been done by high wrought pictures of rapid gain held out to persons moving into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. There seems to exist a kind of mania to swell every thing relating to those places beyond the measure of common sense” (“Darby’s Louisiana, &c.” Niles’ Weekly Register, November 22, 1817).

It’s true that in many cases words won the West in the nineteenth century. But early emigrant propaganda never reached readers without first being filtered through a series of public debates about the veracity and usefulness of information. As much as the creation of the Euro-American West depended on far-flung readers’ aspirations and dreams, it depended too on their suspicions, on trials and errors.

J.T. Jamieson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley and studies nineteenth-century America.

William Plumer and the Politics of History Writing

By guest contributor Emily Yankowitz

On December 30, 1806, on the inner cover of his first attempt at writing a historical work, the New Hampshire statesman William Plumer wrote, “An historian, like a witness, is bound to relate the truth, the whole truth, & nothing but the truth.” He would take up his project of writing a “History of North America” in November 1809 after three years of research. In what appears to be typical of Plumer’s personality, he intended to write a history of the United States government, but the project quickly expanding into “a general history of the United States” from its discovery by Europeans to his own time It was to include accounts of administrations, laws, presidents, heads of departments, members of Congress, judiciary, foreign relations, negotiations, relations with Indian tribes, purchases of lands, and commerce. Reaching even further into the past, he began with an overview of classical history, including the invention of hieroglyphics, and a detailed study of European political events, before arriving at the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 over 220 pages later. Yet having worked on the project for nine years and seeing little progress, Plumer unceremoniously put it aside, writing, “The undertaking I have abandoned” on the last page.

Picture1

William Plumer, engraving by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin (1806). Photo credit: Library of Congress

A Federalist senator in a Congress dominated by President Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, Plumer had little hope of influencing politics. Watching his vision of the world collapse around him, Plumer recalled that with nearly every measure Jefferson proposed, he was reminded of the angel’s declaration to Ezekiel, “Turn, & thou shall behold yet greater abominations” (Plumer to Jeremiah Smith, January 27, 1803, quoted in Turner, “Thomas Jefferson,” 207). These “abominations” included the Louisiana Purchase, the Twelfth Amendment, and the impeachment of New Hampshire judge John Pickering. Frustrated and alarmed, Plumer helped to plan a scheme for New England secession in 1803–1804, hoping to create a “Northern confederacy.” But the project quickly fell apart, although intransigent Federalists would take up a similar plan at the 1814–1815 Hartford Convention.

 

Amid a career in jeopardy and anxieties about the future, Plumer found solace in historical pursuits. Overwhelmed by his country’s fast-paced development, history offered Plumer a method of “preserving facts & opinions” that were “rapidly hasting to oblivion” as a result of the “changes & revolution of time and parties” (May 2, 1805). Unlike other senators who indulged in horse racing and gambling, Plumer spent his free time hidden for hours in the Congressional Library, reading voraciously. This curiosity was one of Plumer’s most pronounced traits; the son of a farmer, Plumer received little formal schooling beyond elementary studies, and pursued much of his education through books.

Over time, Plumer’s intellectual interests expanded. Spotting a mound of scattered government documents in the damp, mildewed lumber room above the Senate chamber, he devoted himself to preserving them, methodically sorting through the soiled records. Through the next four years, Plumer collected journals of every Congress from 1774 to his own, enough to fill between four and five hundred bound volumes. He eventually came to possess one of the largest and most complete collections of public papers held by a private citizen, even after he donated a substantial amount to the Massachusetts Historical Society. This effort rescued valuable documents from destruction, and also provided Plumer with a substantial number of sources for his later historical works. According to his son, it was this collecting effort that inspired Plumer to write a history of the country (For more information, see Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 262-4).

1280px-Official_Presidential_portrait_of_Thomas_Jefferson_(by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800)

President Thomas Jefferson, painted by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

With the end of his term approaching, Plumer set about preparing for this enormous task—consulting with government officers, copying private letters shown to him by friends, and corresponding with antiquarians and scholars. He conferred with Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, who offered him any materials needed from the Treasury department. Not everyone was supportive—at least one friend advised Plumer to publish his history posthumously to avoid giving “mortal offence” to contemporaries (February 28, 1807). His meeting with President Jefferson showed how complex the publication of his history might be. Plumer observed that Jefferson’s “countenance […] repeatedly changed.” Jefferson expressed “uneasiness and embarrassment—at other [moments] he seemed pleased.” Seemingly affected by a range of emotions, Jefferson alternated between looking at Plumer and staring at the floor. Jefferson’s reaction perplexed Plumer, who reasoned that Jefferson must have been “embarrassed,” and “disapproved” of the project (February 4, 1807). But he also discussed Jefferson’s strange response with John Quincy Adams, who informed him that Jefferson “cannot be a lover of history,” as he did not want certain “prominent traits in his character” and “important actions in his life” to be outlined and communicated to posterity (February 9, 1807). Jefferson’s own actions appear to echo this sentiment. Out of a desire to control how he would be remembered, Jefferson later professed to have “no materials whatever” for Plumer’s project despite its usefulness to the country.

Plumer’s background and personality did not make him a particularly obvious candidate for the project. In his diary, he mulled over his doubts about his efforts, noting his personal shortcomings, the complications of his private life, and the magnitude of the project. He was not a “scholar” or a “master of the English grammar,” he noted, and could not read any foreign language or express his ideas quickly on paper. Regarding his personal life, his wife was often sick and he himself had a “weak & feeble constitution.” However, Plumer was also highly aware of the shortcomings of existing “historic performances,” namely state histories, which were written too quickly. They contained factual errors, had a “loose & slovenly” style, and “fall short of the true style & dignity of history.” He found Benjamin Trumbull’s Complete History of Connecticut to be “written in the style of a low dull Chronicle,” while James Sullivan’s History of the District of Maine was a “jumble of fact & fable” (July 22, 1806). Yet his task would take “indefatigable industry, & patient labour to render it useful to others and honorable to myself.” Virgil took twelve years to write the Aeneid, Plumer worried, while Edward Gibbon took twenty years to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Plumer would exceed both Virgil and Gibbon, ultimately devoting the remainder of his life to historical works that ultimately remained unpublished.

While Plumer believed the work would be useful for “future statesmen,” he also hoped to enhance his reputation. If he successfully produced the work, it would be an “imperishable monument that would perpetuate” his name. Highlighting the inextinguishable impact of history, Plumer noted that it would exist when “columns of marble are dissolved & crumbled to dust.” However, if he did not execute it well it would “tarnish & destroy” the little “fame” he had acquired (July 22, 1806). Thus, writing history had political as well as personal consequences.

William_Plumer,_Jr.

William Plumer, Jr., depicted in The Granite State Monthly (1889)

Plumer was not alone in using history to achieve a recognition he would never receive through politics. In fact, one of his sons, William Plumer Jr., would take up a similar project in 1830, after completing his term as a representative. Reflecting on the project, he noted that if “executed with any tolerable success, it would be a more important service rendered to the public than I can hope in any other way to perform” and he might be able to acquire a “reputation, however small” if the work was successfully produced (“Manuscript History of the United States”). While the boundaries of Plumer Jr.’s intended project were smaller (he planned to begin with Columbus’s voyage in 1492), he made little progress.

 

Unable to acquire national political fame, Plumer sought recognition through history, while also pursuing a political (though nonpartisan) agenda. Even after his formal political party had changed to the Republican position, Plumer retained much of his Federalist view of the world, in part because of his own distaste for partisanship and in part because he lived in Federalist-concentrated New England. In particular, much like the Federalists of the 1790s, Plumer never fully supported the existence of political parties, viewing them as agents of division that distracted men from effectively evaluating candidates based on their abilities. Just as Plumer disapproved of partisanship in politics, he also disapproved of it in historical writing. For example, he wrote that historians and biographers should have “no other object than faithfully narrate facts & justly delineate characters” for when they “stoop to the support of a party or a sect” their “facts are misstated and their reasoning is sophistry” (“May 25, 1808”). Plumer argued that a historian should be “of no party in politic’s [sic] … without prejudice, & have more judgement than fancy” (“October 1, 1807”). Thus, for Plumer, historians did a disservice not only to the integrity of their subject, but also to the influence of their work, if they espoused partisan views.

Looking a bit further into the nineteenth century, historians would divide over whether it was acceptable to combine history and politics. In particular, following the decline of the Federalist party and the rise of Andrew Jackson, New England historians attempted to use history as a mechanism of regaining the power and influence they had lost in politics. Some followed both paths, like George Bancroft, who pursued a political career while working on his History of the United States, while others such as William Prescott and Jared Sparks believed that the two disciplines were incompatible (Cheng, The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth, 36-41). However, many members of both groups believed that history could be used as a method of advancing political agendas.

In an attempt to save their party from destruction in the wake of the Hartford Convention, some Federalists wrote historical works that tried (largely unsuccessfully) to shape how posterity remembered the event. Prompted in part by the publication of Matthew Carey’s wildly successful The Olive Branch and the Nullification Crisis, Federalists turned to writing histories to justify their actions. These works included Theodore Lyman’s 1823 A Short Account of the Hartford Convention, Harrison Gray Otis’ 1824 Letters in Defence of the Hartford Convention, and the People of Massachusetts, and Theodore Dwight’s 1833 History of the Hartford Convention. However, these works were generally unsuccessful.

Eager to shape both policies and how they would be remembered, early American politicking occurred both in the halls of Congress and in the pages of books. Plumer hoped to play a central role in constructing the young nation’s emerging identity and its memories of the early figures of the founding era. Thus, his historical writings—which he would continue for decades after his failed “History,” but largely never publish—serve as a reminder that our very understanding of the past has often been shaped by the individuals in the moment who had the foresight to record it. Given how the historical discipline has changed over time, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss early historian’s writings. However, they nonetheless offer a useful perspective on how contemporaries perceived the world around them and how they wanted it to be remembered.

Emily Yankowitz recently graduated from Yale University and is an incoming M.Phil. student in American History at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the intersection of politics, culture, and memory in the early American republic.